Breakfast at Ballydoyle

YOU spend a couple of hours with a family that achieves to such an incredibly high degree and the expectation is that you emerge with an insight.

Breakfast at Ballydoyle

But we already know about the attention to detail, the keen eye, the work ethic and the quality of raw material there is to work with. So it’s best to come clean. There is nothing new to reveal. The best that can be said – and there’s no headline in this – is that the O’Briens are normal.

This is racing royalty.

Dad is a training behemoth, mum a former pioneering amateur jockey who became the first woman to be champion jumps trainer. The children are all winning riders. The eldest son has broken a slew of records and he’s just 21, the eldest daughter is doing well in the amateur ranks, the next daughter was the first woman to ride in the Irish Oaks, while the 16-year-old son won the Cesarewitch on a horse owned by his mother and trained by his father. They excel but there’s no arrogance. They’re not boring either. Aidan is a bit of a joker. Healthy eating is important to him. Annemarie is your typical mother, so she’s focussed on the kids’ education. Naturally, she’s protective too; fearing for their physical safety and the possible brickbats lurking around the corner.

The progeny mirror their parents. Mannerly, grounded and with that wry sense of humour. There is a lot of laughter. This is a different operation to most training set-ups in that Ballydoyle is a vital cog of a wider business model. That carries some constraints and demands that often expose them to searing criticism. It can be frustrating at times but down to the youngest, they are well aware that this is part of the territory.

The other thing to say is that this is a co-operative, as the pros and cons of potential courses of action are weighed up across the table.

At one stage, Aidan is on the phone discussing a particular aspect of the impending trip to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup. Everyone has a say. Even when Aidan is answering a question, he often ends with “Is that right lads?”

Anyway, breakfast is served. There is a week between the end of the season and the Breeders’ Cup. It’s the quietest time at Ballydoyle.

When they return home, next year’s two-year-olds start coming in and it is as intense as any time in the summer. Now though, they’re chilling.

Well, sort of.

Aidan lands at the table with mobile, headphones and walkie talkie.

Daragh Ó Conchuir: In most houses, you’d get fierce grief for such anti-social behaviour Aidan.

Aidan: Everyone gives me grief. I get the most abuse of anyone in this house in all fairness.

Donnacha: Not really.

Annemarie: The reality is that Aidan has to be available 24 hours a day so it’s just part of it. You just have to get on with it. The phone is on all the time.

DÓC: It’s been another brilliant year. Australia, the outstanding juveniles, becoming the first European trainer to win Group 1’s in five different countries in one season, the NH strike-rate and the lads riding winners. There were a few low points too, notably Australia’s loss in the Irish Champion Stakes and the injuries to him and Leading Light. How do you analyse the past 12 months?

Aidan: “We were very happy. We were very lucky to win a lot and we ended up with a lot of nice horses to go forward next year. We did lose some too but that’s part of the thing. You can’t win everything and if anybody did win everything it wouldn’t be good for the sport. Obviously when horses are fancied and they get beaten –they can get beaten for so many different reasons – it’s a big disappointment. But it’s not the end of the world. We do our best every day, every one of us. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and usually, I could see if my horse got beat it would’ve been my fault because I would have changed things, given different instructions. Someone has to take the blame.

We’re lucky we’re in the position we are with the horses that we have and the team of people that we’re all working together with. It gets tough when things go really wrong, when big horses do get beaten. But the reality is that it does happen. Life doesn’t go smoothly all the time. We’re very lucky the lads have such good horses that we can compete in most of the big races most of the time. When you’re doing that you’re flat out all the time. You’re always prone to getting caught by somebody whose horses are running well.

When we do get beaten it hurts very badly but if it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t drive you to the next one. Some of the horses that would have got beat or things went wrong, we wouldn’t have felt in any way that it was a reflection on the horses. Circumstances would have gone against us a few times.”

Joseph: “You can’t win everything. You’d love to but you can’t. That’s the way the game has been for 100 years.”

Aidan: “We feel very lucky that the lads are riding for us and all have a great interest. Joseph and Donnacha are two very big men but while they can, they’ll stay riding. Sarah rides as an amateur, which is perfect for us. And Ana rides on the flat and is lighter than anyone here. We’ll keep Ana light. We won’t feed Ana for a long time. We don’t feed the boys much either but whatever it is, they keep growing!”

DÓC: Does the lads’ involvement increase the enjoyment?

Aidan: “It does but it also increases the intensity of it. There’s no doubt about that. With the help of God, if we all stay well, we’ll keep surviving for a long time. The reality of it is all our roles will change through life as we go along. We’re 45 now, but we would have felt we’ve learned an awful lot over the last 20 years. From the time the lads were able to breathe, nothing went into their heads only horses, horses, horses. When Joseph was born, we built a yard up The (Carriganog) Hill (in Piltown) and we lived in one wing of the stable block so the lads grew up surrounded by horses.”

Joseph: “We never had a chance!”

DÓC: As a mother Annemarie, are you very nervous watching?

Annemarie: “I actually don’t watch a lot of the races now. I prefer to watch the replays later.”

DÓC: Their involvement adds to the enjoyment and the fear.

Aidan: “Annemarie is looking for clear rounds all the time. The lads are trying to do everything they can to win.”

Annemarie: “Jockeys are not followed by two ambulances every minute of their working life for no reason. It happens.”

DÓC: You did it yourself. Did you and Aidan think long and hard about Joseph in particular being in this spotlight so young Annemarie, knowing it would be more intense him being who he was? The praise is loud but the criticism can be venomous, which is why he has removed himself from Twitter.

Annemarie: “Isn’t that the life of a sportsperson? No matter what sport you’re involved in.”

Donnacha: “I think it’s much worse for jockeys. Maybe footballers, but most other sportspeople don’t get the same abuse jockeys get when it goes wrong.”

DÓC: There’s an obvious reason for that.

Annemarie: “People are betting.”

Sarah: “Jockeys get an awful lot of abuse but it’s part and parcel of it. Everyone gets it.”

DÓC: But on Twitter, you have lunatics, or people talking through their pockets. You must read terrible stuff.

Ana: “Just don’t type your name in.”

Donnacha: “You can type your name in when you’re after giving something a peach!”

Annemarie: “You get a lot of commentators who have no idea of the temperament of the horse you’re riding, they’ve no idea of what your instructions were before you went out, they’ve no idea of the level of fitness a particular horse has and they have no idea or comprehension of how much thought, preparation and discussion takes place before the jockey gets on the horse. Even with that much preparation, things will still go wrong as circumstances unfold that you could not have envisaged; maybe a horse unexpectedly runs a bit keen, or maybe the pace could be very slow, or maybe your horse could jump too prominently or too slowly. So to hear criticism from some quarters can be annoying. Journalists have a real responsibility to be very careful what they write about, particularly when it comes to criticism, as their words are being published and the public reading it, in most cases, are going to assume that they know what they are talking about.”

Sarah: “We’ve all been brought up in it. We’re used to it. Everyone gets it. So there’s no point letting it get to you. It’s like when Zenyatta got beaten in the Breeders’ Cup. Everyone slated him.”

Joseph: “Mike Smith. And that was the most unbelievable ride any horse ever got.”

Sarah: “If you watch the race, she looked really stiff. She couldn’t physically move much faster and he was brave enough to allow her to warm-up. If he forced her too early, she would probably have come nowhere, could have broken a leg or anything. He was brave enough to do the right thing but then he got terrible stick for it. But if he had won a head instead of being beaten, it would have been the ride of the year.”

DÓC: At what age were you aware your mother was a history-maker?

Sarah: Don’t worry, she let us know fairly early!

DÓC: You couldn’t ask for a better role model in racing.

Sarah: Oh, we get reminded regularly!

Donnacha: Mum’s philosophy in racing is swing wide and stay out of trouble.

Annemarie: But how many hard-luck stories do you get in every single race? It happens down the inside all the time.

DÓC: Do you miss training, Annemarie?

Annemarie: No, not a bit. It’s full on here. Even for the lads. Donnacha is trying to do his Leaving Cert, go racing and ride out in the morning; both girls are in college and they want to go racing, keep fit and pass their exams. It’s a big balancing act, but college terms work well with the flat season.

Donnacha: Is my Leaving Cert during Royal Ascot?

Cue a discussion between mother and son about what might occur in the event of a ride being on offer at flat racing’s Cheltenham. You can guess how such a conversation might go between parent and teenager. Fast forward.

Annemarie: In this game, you have to have a Plan B.

DÓC: Particularly when you’ve so much competition in your own household.

Annemarie: The thing is, the competition will be short-lived because the reality for the boys is it’s only a matter of time before they get too heavy to ride on the flat. You can’t change nature.

DÓC: They’re saying that about Joseph for a while, but he’s still there.

Annemarie: Yeah. He’ll take it year by year, but it’s inevitable that he will get heavier.

Joseph: People are always asking me about my weight but there’s jockeys doing it every day of the week to ride horses half as good as I get to ride. I get a bit embarrassed sometimes people asking me, because of that. I’ll keep at it as long as I can.

DÓC: Who’s your favourite horse?

Aidan: Istabraq and Galileo. Istabraq taught us so much. He was our first big horse in Ballydoyle. We got the feel from him the way everything was done. Istabraq was one of those horses that was just better than the rest. When he ran in a field of 10 horses, you knew there was no other horse better than him. He was the start of it. And we learned about pressure. When Istabraq ran, it was like everybody owned him, so everyone was disappointed if it went wrong. Galileo was our first Derby winner and only for Galileo, we might have none of this. He was incredible.”

Annemarie: “Yeats is one that stands out a bit as well.”

Joseph: “St Nic[holas Abbey] was the one for me. Winning the Breeders’ Cup… he was my first ride in all the big races and I used to ride him out every day.”

* This is an abridged version of an article in this year’s Irish Racing Yearbook 2015, which is available in all good book shops or can be ordered on www.irishracingyearbook.com.

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